Sometime after Highland had finished as runner-up to Skyline in November's 4A prep football championships and just before the Rams were to start Region 2 basketball action in January, Highland Coach Larry Maxwell was making bold statements about his team coming around and looking like a state contender. And then the Rams broke even at 6-6 in league play, barely made the state tournament as the region's fourth and final seed and finished the regular season with a three-loss slump.
Then in a team meeting following the regular-season-ending loss to Skyline, the Rams: 1) announce they've rededicated themselves for the postseason, 2) predict a state 4A championship, 3) follow through with tourney wins against talented squads like Provo, Bonneville and Cottonwood, and 4) culminate the tournament, title and all, with a 65-62 victory over Timpview in Friday's 4A finals at the Huntsman Center.And with this power of positive thinking and optimism and such, the Rams still needed to beg, borrow or steal a pair of scissors to cut down the nets in post-title celebration.
All this from a one of the most rag-tag title-winning teams you'll ever see, starting with University of Colorado football recruit Kerry Hicks and Air Force Academy football recruit Joe Sheffield - the former a mammoth lineman and the latter a short, stocky back. Toss in another Highland lineman in Quen Cannon, lookalike David Smith (both are about 6-3, 6-4 with light complexion, reddish hair and a soft shooting touch), and skin-and-bones bombardier Justin Scott.
Looks are one thing. "We don't mind that," said Cannon. "We won it."
Sheffield agreed: "We believed in ourselves, and we don't care what others think."
And Smith's opinion? "A lot of heart."
Looks can be deceiving - Hicks had 19 points and 10 rebounds, Smith tossed in two treys and 18 points, Scott had four 3s as part of his 15 points, and Cannon added another 10 points and seven boards.
And in the middle of all this - Maxwell, whose coaching spans three decades. Whose 91st tournament game resulted in the 1991 4A title. Whose seven trips to the finals have resulted in four state trophies.
"The Old Master's done a heck of a job tonight," said one fellow 4A coach.
Of course, the title wasn't locked up until Timpview's Richard Jackson failed on a pair of game-tying treys - the last buzzer-beater bouncing up off the rim not once but twice. But that was at the end of the game. Here's how Highland started out:
The Rams opened up with an 18-12 lead after the first period on 6-of-8 shooting and three Scott treys, with the biggest hindrance being five turnovers. Timpview didn't do itself much damage, shooting 50 percent from the floor as Bob Bearnson alone scored 10 points.
Despite a 6-0 scoring spurt by Hicks early in the second quarter, the T-birds brought the margin down to trail by just two points several times. But the Rams, who finished the half shooting 10-of-12 for 83 percent, used a late Smith trey for a 32-28 halftime lead.
Early in the second half, Highland pushed the advantage to 15 points as Cannon and Smith keyed a 13-2 run. But the Rams' shooting dipped down to more mortal levels - 5-of-9 for the quarter - as Timpview used its own 8-of-11 shooting to whittle down the deficit. Jackson's three-point play late made it 50-45 to end the third.
Highland pushed the lead back to a dozen quickly in the fourth, as Hicks scored five of the Rams' seven-point surge. And again, Timpview continued to edge closer, despite being down 64-55 with just 90 seconds left to play. The T-birds outscored the Rams 7-1 the rest of the way - Jackson scoring a pair from the line, Matt Bateman adding a layup and Jackson canning a trey, while Highland could convert four one-and-one opportunities into just one point.
With the score at 65-62, Jackson, who scored 24 points, missed a game-tying trey in air-ball fashion with 3.9 seconds left. After Highland went to the line again and missed again, Jackson rebounded the ball and let go of a buzzer-beating heave from two-thirds court. The ball bounded up out of the rim, up on the backboard and glanced off.
4A Tournament Finishes
1. Highland (16-8)
2. Timpview (21-4)
3. Orem (16-7)
4. Cottonwood (20-4)
5. Davis (18-6)
6. Brighton (16-8)
7. Hillcrest (20-4)
8. Provo (19-5)